The Grammar of the Archaeological Record

1. The System

2. Nature and Structure of the Constituents

Giorgio Buccellati – June 2010

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2.1: The notion of minimal constituents

Our first task is to identify the minimal constituents, the building blocks of analysis (see above, 3.10 missing section, ZGx13 mDP).

The constitutive nature of the constituents must be understood as -emic (see above, 2.1 missing section, ZFx13 mDP). We must define those constituents which are mutually exclusive and which together form a closed system. To this end, I will first identify, in this chapter, the broadest classes of constituents, and will then, in the next chapter, define the types of constituents which belong to each of the classes.

For a list of constituents, see section 3.7.

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2.2: Constituents proper and para-constituents

Within a grammatical frame of reference, the constituents proper must be minimal and systemic (see above, 3.10 missing section, ZGx13 mDP). The system within which they are inscribed is the record – physical and descriptive. They pertain to the things found in the ground and to the parameters that are overlaid on the physical reality. I will deal with the details in the following paragraphs.

Besides constituents proper, I recognize another class which is in some ways parallel (para-constituents), which I call incidentals. An incidental is a non-systemic item of description, i.e., an entry in the recording system that refers to situations and events pertaining to chronicle details – e.g., strategy to be pursued on a given day, daily review of entire unit, weather as observed by a given supervisor, surveying as pertaining to given operation, etc. By definition, this class is properly outside the system, and thus it is not in fact a constituent as such. It is considered alongside the constituents proper because it occupies in the archive an analogous rank, and may accordingly be called a para-constituent.

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2.3: Classes of constituents proper

There are two classes of constituents proper, which I call elements/para-elements and referents.

An element is a minimal stratigraphic/typological constituent of the data, which is further defined as either stationary (features – e.g. wall, floor), or movable (items and lots – e.g. blade, sherd lot).

A para-element is an element which does not exist as such (stratigraphically), but is presupposed on the basis of direct evidence (generally an impression left on other elements: a peg’s impression on a sealing), or indirect evidence (generally an argument, e.g. a wall assumed on the basis of a building’s layout). In other words, the term refers to elements which exist only inferentially, but are nevertheless assumed to be real (on the basis, precisely, of a reasonable inference) and are not just imagined. By nature, a para-element is identical to an element, and belongs in the same class. It is only in terms of their evidentiary grounding that elements and para-elements should be distinguished. (The term “para-element” is introduced on the analogy of terms like “para-medical,” “para-normal,” or even “para(-)phrase.”)

A referent is a minimal constituent of the recording system, pertaining to either the physical network (e.g. control point, relay), or the analytical network (e.g. journal, photograph).

Following is a chart that surveys synoptically the criteria for distinguishing the main classes of constituents and incidentals.

constituents element minimal stratigraphic/typological constituent of data stationary feature
movable object, specimen, sample
para-element an element which does not exist as such (strati­graphically), but is pre­supposed on the basis of direct evidence such as an impression left on another element, e.g. a peg on a sealing
indirect evidence generally an argument, e.g., a wall assumed on the basis of a building’s layout
referent minimal constituent of recording system, pertaining to physical network e.g., control point, relay
analytical network e.g., journal, photograph
para-constituents incidental non-systemic unit of description, i.e., situations and events pertaining to chronicle details identified by appropriate specific label, e.g. sg (strategy to be pursued on a given day), dy (daily review of entire unit), we (weather as observed by given unit supervisor), sy (surveying as pertaining to given unit), etc. [for a full list of incidental codes, see here.]

Fig. 2-1: Constituents and para-constituents.

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2.4: Minimality and systemics

The constituents are minimal in a relative sense. This means especially two things:

  1. first, each class excludes any other – in this respect, they are minimal because no constituent so defined can be subsumed under another (an element such as a wall cannot be subsumed under a referent such as a locus);
  2. second, within each type of constituent, nesting of subtypes is possible – in this respect they are minimal without excluding the possibility of combinatorial processes (an element such as a wall may consist of components such a brick).

The notion of system underlies the classification, meaning that any constituent is to be understood in relationship to all other constituents, and not anectodatlly, in and by itself. In the next chapter we will look specifically at the specific types of constituents and para-constituents, i.e., the concrete embodiments that elements, referents and incidentals can take. First, however, we should describe the structure and organization of the constituents within the system, i.e., their intrinsic and and their combinatorial properties.

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2.5: Intrinsic properties as criteria for definition

There is a rich set of properties which defines any given constituent. The specifics of these properties are given as paradigms of variables or attributes, which I call rosters, and as lists of variants or attribute states, which I call lexica; they are described in detail below (for the “main roster”, see 6; for the “main lexicon”, see 7). Here I will explain the concepts.

Property is one of several analytical traits which together define a constituent. It is to be further differentiated into variables (or attributes) and variants (or attribute states – see already above, 3.8 missing section, ZGx13 mDP).

A variable or attribute or attribute argument is one of a set of possible qualities or identifying marks which may be found to characterize a given constituent (e.g., type of contact or color). Since these variables are listed as part of a roster, they are also called “roster slots.”

A variant or attribute state is the content of a variable, i.e., the particular quality which happens to fill the particular slot (e.g., white). Since these slots are those listed within a roster, the variants, which fill these slots, are also called “roster contents.”

Variables and variants are organized according to the logical structure of any given whole (e.g., emplacement), resulting in specific paradigms. These are essentially inventories of choices sorted in a structural sequence. There are two types of pertinent paradigms; a roster is a structural sequence of attribute slots (variables), and a lexicon a list of attribute states (variants for variables).

A special category that is related to the lexicon is that of standards (see section 10). These are criteria that define variants according to precise parameters, e.g., the Munsell standard 10R 5/3 “weak red” as a more specific and verifiable definition than a more generic “reddish.”

Any given constituent is defined on the basis of a batch of properties that are drawn from the paradigms indicated, and it is identified through a unique label. A label is an alpha-numeric code that is derived from a sequential log. There are different labels that correspond to different degrees of specificity.

Every constituent must have a generic label, which is based on stratigraphy and on a minimum of typological specificity – essentially features and items.

To the extent that typological analysis proceeds, higher levels of specificity are possible, and they are reflected in a variety of specific labels.

This overall classification is presented synoptically in Fig. 2-2.

attribute one of several analytical traits which together define a constituent variable or Roster Slot or Attribute Argument: category of element structure (e.g., color)
variant or Roster Entry or Attribute State: content of variable (= typological or specific label, e.g., white)
paradigm inventory of choices sorted in structural sequence roster structural sequence of attribute arguments (variables)
lexicon list of attribute states (variants for variables)
standard description of para­meters defining variants implicit (e.g., “brown” as common sense value)
explicit (e.g., Munsell color value)
label alpha-numeric code derived from sequential log, which identifies uniquely any given constituent generic label minimum stratigraphic/typological definition (e.g., feature, item) – primary or first level of specificity
specific label intermediate typological definition (from lexicon of variants, e.g., wall, tablet)

Fig. 2-2. Intrinsic properties of consituents

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2.6: Combinatorial properties of elements

The structure of an element can be defined on the basis of its combinatorial properties, which result in either splitting or joining. On the one hand, an element may be split or subdivided into components, and on the other, several elements may be joined or grouped into clusters, as summarized in the following chart.

splitting component typological subdivision of element (e.g., brick, sherd)
sub-component quantitative subdivision of element (e.g., sherd-1, sherd-2)
joining cluster or complex constituent grouping of elements or referents according to given criteria (e.g., aggregate)

Fig. 2-3. Combinatorial processes

A component is a typological sub-unit of an element, and sub-component a quantitative sub-unit of either an element or a component (referents do not have components). There may be one or more component of either type for any given element. For example, if the element is a jar, a typological component of the jar may be a seal impression on its shoulder, and a second typological component may be a cloth impression. If there is more than one seal or cloth impressions, there will be more than one quantitative sub-unit of that particular typological component. Analogously, for a pottery lot, there will be one or more sherds (quantitative component) for any given type of ware and/or shape (typological component). This may be represented synoptically in the following chart.

element typological component quantitative component
jar seal impression 1
cloth impression 3
pottery lot simple ware 35
early Trans-Caucasian 1
metallic ware 3

Fig. 2-4. Components and sub-components

A cluster is a grouping of elements or referents according to a given criterion. For example, a group of vessels functionally related and sitting on the same floor constitutes a cluster (aggregate), and so is a group of photographs related through a set of views (web). A cluster may be viewed as a complex element. The most important of these clusters fall under the category of aggregates.

The difference between elements and clusters is in the degree of nesting established, or choice of parameters made, by the excavator: for instance, bricks are generally considered as components of wall, and a wall as an element of an aggregate. Paradoxically, it may be said that a site (or the world itself!) is an aggregate, but neither susceptible of proper analysis. On the other hand, a wall is an appropriate unit of analysis if considered an element. As was already stressed above (10.1 missing section, ZGx13 mDP), there is no element which is so in an absolute sense; it is only a relative function of nesting choices.

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2.7: Summary

The analysis given above for constituents and para-constituents (incidentals) is summarized in the diagram given below as Fig. 2-5. The constituent is represented by the main box, next to which one may place the incidental, which is outside the main system, and does not therefore have any of the systemic articulation of the constituent, but fills an analogous location within the archive.

Within the main box, the constituent proper is the central node. The two main classes are shown as branching out below this central node.

The structure is represented in two ways – the components splitting the element as lower branches (for typology and quantity, in sequence; the quantitative component ia also called a sub-component), and the clusters serving as higher nodes which group one or more individual constituents.

The properties or attributes are represented by the variables or attributes (as listed in the rosters), for each of which there is in turn a variant or attribute state (as listed in the lexicon).

Figure 2-5 Summary
Fig. 2-5. Summary: The term is introduced on the analogy of terms like para-medical, para-normal, or even para(-)phrase.

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